Education

The Iowa Caucuses: a Political Mess, but a Teaching Opportunity?

By Stephen Sawchuk — February 04, 2020 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Civics and government teachers have their hands full, between teaching the official opening of the presidential primary season with the Iowa caucuses, President Trump’s State of the Union address tonight, and the soon-to-be-concluded Senate impeachment trial—all within just hours of each other.

The fast-moving impeachment situation has posed ongoing challenges for educators. But of the three, the situation in the Iowa caucuses is perhaps the most immediately perpexing for both students and teachers to wrap their heads around. The caucus process itself is convoluted, and the results were impacted by a glitchy app and telephone hotline that prevented hundreds of caucus chairs from reporting the results of the state’s nearly 1,700 caucuses in a timely way. The delay was especially disappointing to Democratic political watchers, who hoped that they’d provide some degree of clarity in a crowded primary field.

But as usual, where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. Here are three ideas teachers might explore in their classrooms—all gathered from practicing teachers and civic education organizations.

The youth turnout. A civics education research group at Tufts University (take a deep breath to get through this title), the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, put out a straw poll of Iowa youth (18- to 29-year-olds) a few weeks before the caucuses. (Spoiler: They tended to favor Bernie Sanders and were generally not keen on Joe Biden.) It would be enlightening to compare these findings with the actual tallies from the caucuses—still not released at the time of this writing, and with the upcoming turnout in New Hampshire and other primary states.

Teachers could start by asking some of these questions: Why might youth favor some candidates and not others? Did youth turn out at the same level as they did in 2016? Why did results for all Iowans reflect (or not reflect) youth preferences? Not long ago, I wrote a story about a math teacher who helped her students understand that elections are often won when political parties focus on particular constituencies to help eke out a win. Who might those have been in Iowa?

The impact on the primaries in general. Criticisms of the caucus process aren’t exactly new. Iowa has long been a flashpoint. It’s homogenous, not highly populated, and much less racially diverse than most other states, yet its curious caucus system has had an outsize influence on the modern system of party primaries since the 1970s. The new round of glitches seem to have prompted an outpouring of criticism that they simply aren’t a good enough foundation to lead the pack.

But that begs the question: How would one improve it? If Iowa didn’t lead things off, how would the primary process change for the rest of the nation? Would a national political primary held on the same day—the standard in many other countries, and often suggested as a replacement—be an improvement, or would it also have tradeoffs?

Media literacy. There was an explosion of trading in conspiracy theories following the caucuses, and there is now evidence that some of them were being purposely amplified by both right- and left-leaning gadflies, including through false Twitter accounts. Among other things, these theories are claiming that the results are rigged; that final tallies, when they do come out, can’t be trusted (which is not true; they are based on paper recounts), and that certain candidates who seemed to be trending last night, like Pete Buttigieg, were somehow tied to the malfunctioning app. President Trump himself has used the confusion to bolster his own re-election bid and to cast doubt on the nation’s electoral processes in general.

There is quite a lot of evidence that students have a poor ability to judge the quality of what they read online (many adults do, too), so this is a good time for teachers to have students practice some media literacy skills: How should they judge some of the claims coming out from all over the internet about the results of this caucus? How can they determine whether a tweet has any basis in reality? We now know, by the way, that the explicit teaching of skills like these can improve students’ ability to critically consume digital information.

There’s even a point to be made that in fixating on quick results, mainstream media are driving up hysteria instead of covering the current attempt by Iowa officials to methodically review all the paper voting materials from each caucus.

For Stephanie Sleeper, a high school social studies teacher, in the Mount Mansfield Unified Union district, in Richmond, Vt., teachers’ key duty is providing context.

“Because my students don’t have a lot of knowledge of how the presidency has worked in the past, or how people live outside of Vermont, I always give context,” she said. “So, some of the history of the State of the Union and how the bully pulpit works; how and why the Iowa caucus became the “first in the nation"; and how horse-race journalism affects presidential elections,” she said. “I think it helps them to understand different factors and how we have changed over time. It hasn’t always been this way, and on many occasions it has been worse.

“They are very distrustful of institutions like political parties and I do spend some time dispelling misinformation and disinformation while also giving them space to figure out what could work better. I think showing them how we have managed to overcome some major challenges helps them,” she concluded.

Image: Precinct captain Carl Voss, of Des Moines, Iowa, holds his iPhone that shows the Iowa Democratic Party’s caucus reporting app. AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP